Evidence discussed in this review article lends strong support in favor of an etiologic role of environmental factors in Parkinson's disease. First, thanks to the discovery of MPTP (1-methyl-4-phenyl-1,2,3,6-tetrahydropyridine), it is now clear that, by targeting the nigrostriatal system, neurotoxicants can reproduce the neurochemical and pathological features of idiopathic parkinsonism. The sequence of toxic events triggered by MPTP has also provided us with intriguing clues concerning mechanisms of toxicant selectivity and nigrostriatal vulnerability. Relevant examples are (i) the role of the plasma membrane dopamine transporter in facilitating the access of potentially toxic species into dopaminergic neurons; (ii) the vulnerability of the nigrostriatal system to failure of mitochondrial energy metabolism; and (iii) the contribution of inflammatory processes to tissue lesioning. Epidemiological and experimental data suggest the potential involvement of specific agents as neurotoxicants (e.g. pesticides) or neuroprotective compounds (e.g. tobacco products) in the pathogenesis of nigrostriatal degeneration, further supporting a relationship between the environment and Parkinson's disease. A likely scenario that emerges from our current knowledge is that neurodegeneration results from multiple events and interactive mechanisms. These may include (i) the synergistic action of endogenous and exogenous toxins (e.g. the ability of the pesticide diethyldithiocarbamate to promote the toxicity of other compounds); (ii) the interactions of toxic agents with endogenous elements (e.g. the protein α-synuclein); (iii) the tissue response to an initial toxic insult; and, last but not least, (iv) the effects of environmental factors on the background of genetic predisposition and aging.
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